Each issue, Newsweek features a well known personality who lists the five most important books they’ve read, along with a short blurb about why each book was important to them. That got me to thinking about which five books most influenced me and so here they are:
Why I Am Not A Christian
I read this when I was a junior in high school. Cambridge philosopher Bertrand Russell’s very straightforward dissection and refutation of the “arguments” for God were impressive at the time and I was pleased to be able to defend my lack of faith from an intellectual standpoint. However, in college, other readings made it evident that “faith” cannot ever result from intellectual analysis or argument; belief in God is a true psychological and emotional “leap of faith” and those on either side of the faith chasm will never be able to convince the other because they are speaking completely different “languages.”
Albert Camus’ 1951 work on nihilism and revolution, and the need for limits to avoid ending up with a new form of tyranny, was an eye opener for an 18-year old budding radical. (Camus won the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature.) A book that I thought would stoke the radical flames turned out to have a moderating influence. Although I was still ready for the revolution, I was just a bit skeptical about what might follow it.
The Structure of Scientific Revolution
Required reading in a college course, Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 analysis of how “accepted” scientific paradigms, undermined by anomalies, undergo “revolutionary” overthrow followed by the establishment of a new paradigm provided me a structure for thinking about political revolution in terms of paradigm, anomaly, revolution and new paradigm. (Of course, Kuhn’s structure mimics Hegel’s philosophy of thesis, antithesis and synthesis which Marx also borrowed to arrive at dialectical materialism, the philosophical basis for communism.)
The Gulag Achipelago
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s indictment of the Soviet forced labor camps is undoubtedly the most difficult and exhausting book I’ve ever read. It’s one thing to read statistics about how many millions perished; but the descriptions of individual humiliation and degradation, all in a very matter-of-fact bureaucratic environment, is emotionally taxing. And it was an easy step from how the Soviet government was an enemy of freedom to the idea that all governments are potentially the enemy of freedom. I think it was this book, which I read in the late 70’s, that emotionally prepared me for the political road to completly rejecting government. But the book that philosophically prepared me for that journey was….
Moral Man, Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics
This book is undoubtedly the most important one influencing my thinking. Although I did not realize it then, reading progressive theologian Rheinhold Niebuhr’s 1932 work while in college planted the seed of my eventual transformation into an anarchist politically and a non-joiner socially.
Niebuhr convincingly made the case that only individuals are capable of acting morally. Groups and institutions take on a collective dynamic that invariably squashes individualism in favor of conformity and sets self-preservation, and preferably advancement, of the group as the highest good. (Even the Christian Church, an institution established for “good”, descended into murder when dealing with the “heretical” Protestant movement.)
That is why I trust no institution to “do the right thing”; morality is outside the nature or comprehension of any institution, including government. Technically, institutions are amoral, not immoral. And in a way that is worse, because immoral suggests an understanding of what is moral and so leaves open the possibility of morality. Amoral has no such understanding and is therefore irredeemable. Consequently, government is irredeemable.
What books have been most influential to your thinking? Share them through a comment.
(Next Sunday: while my reading has gone downhill over the years, I’ve always been a film fan. So next week I’ll tell you about my long love affair with the silver screen.)